What is Red Milkweed?

R. Stamm

The red milkweed is part of a genus consisting of over 120 different varieties of milkweed plants known as Asclepias. It is found growing in swamps, bogs, and pine barrens in the US from New York to Florida as well as the Gulf Coast to Texas. This herbaceous, perennial plant blooms between June and July and is attractive to several different types of insects and birds. The milky, white substance found in the stalk of the plant is toxic, and the levels of toxicity vary depending on the growing season.

Monarch butterflies pollinate red milkweed.
Monarch butterflies pollinate red milkweed.

Even though it is called a red milkweed, the blooms range in color from pink to purple-red or orange-red and form round clusters on a long stem. Growing up to 3 feet (about 1 meter) tall and 1 inch (about 3 cm) in diameter, this slender plant has smooth-edged leaves in various shades of green. The leaves are broad at the base and taper to an acute apex, and the arrangement on the stalk varies depending on the species. Damaged leafs or stalks will ooze a milky white substance which may be fatal if ingested and can irritate the skin.

Swamps and bogs often harbor red milkweed.
Swamps and bogs often harbor red milkweed.

A consistently moist soil is required for proper growth of the plant, but it will tolerate short periods of drought. The red milkweed grows best in clay and loam soils in partial shade to full sun. It is a hardy plant, but is prone to damage by slugs when young because of the damp growing conditions.

Bug species, such as beetles and butterflies, use the plant’s toxicity for survival and defense. Different pollinators of the red milkweed plant include wasps, monarch butterflies, and hummingbirds. In fact, the Asclepias rubra is known as the host of the monarch butterfly and is often used in butterfly gardens. The pollen of milkweed bunches together instead of in individual grains, making it difficult for many other insects to spread it.

Indigenous peoples of the US used the plant for a variety of purposes. They cooked the flower buds or added them to soups, and the tough fibers of the roots were used to make cords and cloth. The red milkweed also has medicinal properties which have been used to treat illnesses from high fever to mild stomach problems. Indigenous peoples also used the plant to treat respiratory diseases, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Today, it is mainly used as a decorative plant in landscapes and makes a charming addition to flower beds or around borders.

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